The Law of the Sea, Economic Rights & Alaskan Coastal Waters

This week, the Senate will conduct hearings to consider the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Referred to by its opponents (many of whom are conservative pundits in this country) as the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST), UNCLOS is one of the products of the third UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which stretched from 1973 to 1982. Easily exceeding the 60 ratifications it required, UNCLOS came into force in 1994 and, as of today 154 nations, including the European community, have joined this Convention.

UNCLOS defines the responsibilities and rights that nations have to their own seas, as well as international waters, establishes strong environmental protection and effective management guidelines for natural resource management, and clearly defines the guidelines for business and trade by sea.

The United States has not ratified the Convention. At the root of our nation’s reasoning behind this stance is the issue of sovereignty – we simply don’t want to have to answer to a higher authority (particularly one so powerfully influenced by Europeans). It’s our heritage.

Sometimes this attitude can be praised as a hearty streak of independence, sometimes (as in recent military actions) it can be criticized as “unilateralism.” At any rate, the governing bodies of the United States (and particularly our nation’s conservatives, who are American enough for us all) are reconsidering our nation’s stance on international sea law. Already the Bush administration and the U.S. military are coming forward to express support for UNCLOS — which means the senate is coming under lots of pressure to get in line.

But why? As it turns out, the United States currently has no right to exercise its sovereignty much farther from Alaska’s coastal shores. With the treaty, the U.S. will be allowed exclusive economic rights to waters up to 240 miles from Alaska’s coast — and who knows how much oil lies beneath those waters??

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